Undine Groeger’s umbrella project Within Our Walls and Beyond is an educational multimedia experience that includes a travelling photo exhibition and documentary photo stories. In 2014, it received support from the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany in Geneva and in January 2015, the Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany. The project has since grown through partnership with CAUX Initiatives of Change Foundation, Impact Hub Geneva and the Centre des Arts at the International School of Geneva (Ecolint) in the framework of the 2016 Festival des Créatives. As a female artist and social entrepreneur, Undine was also awarded in 2016 a one-year mentorship at Softweb in Geneva. In 2017, she moved to New York City after being accepted to the International Center of Photography with a merit scholarship. J.J. Marsh speaks to Undine about her life and art.
Hello Undine. Firstly, congratulations on your acceptance to the International Center of Photography with a merit scholarship, and your recent move to New York City. Let’s start by looking at your own relationship with the wall that inspired your project.
I tend to say, “When the (Berlin) Wall fell, its existence became so much more present in my life, and many more walls were yet to be overcome.”
On 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell I did not know of its existence. Once it had fallen, its existence became much more present in my life as a former East German. This concept is not necessarily one we think about, but it is something that I had to examine and deal with. I was meant to feel free, and through this experience I was taught that a world without walls is bliss.
However, through this experience my identity changed. East and West Germans often labelled each other as ‘the other’ but who was ‘the other’? Home was no longer home—new tastes, new looks, new labels were coming into my life like a tsunami. I could not recognise the sweets or taste of marmalades in my own shops. Two weeks after the fall, products vanished. If you haven’t watched the film Goodbye Lenin, I can only recommend it.
Yes, that is a wonderful film and a real eye-opener into the lives on the other side of the wall.
This is how my journey started. It led me to seek an understanding of my identity, which changed once the Wall fell. I initially hid my identity before eventually embracing it and sharing my experiences and a part of my German history. Today, I see myself as a walker between walls, facilitating dialogues on the theme of other walls and (our) experiences with them. Where were you the evening it came down, Jill?
Like most people of my generation, I was staring at those images on a TV screen and celebrating such a historic moment. It’s something I never thought could happen. That night, a friend of mine was playing a gig in Berlin and I remember being completely awestruck when he returned home with a piece of rubble from the wall itself. Now before we talk about the exhibition in detail, I’d like to learn more about your journey and what drew you to documentary photography.
I’m interested in untold narratives, and documenting moments of life not only for memory, but also to initiate change and facilitate a process of reconciliation.
My journey is rooted in a personal experience: witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall as a 10-year-old who had been born and raised in East Germany. This prompted a personal journey towards understanding Germany’s past by engaging with three generations in my family who experienced the rise and fall of the Wall.
I tell my story through images, and despite what some might expect, my photographic journey began not in East Berlin, but in a place that for me is reminiscent of communist Germany: Transnistria. While unknown to many, Transnistria is considered by some as the break-away Republic of Moldova, an unrecognised state and post-Soviet frozen conflict zone situated between Moldova and Ukraine. About 10 years ago, during a humanitarian mission there, I began using my camera to document life in a place that reminded me of my childhood.
This eventually led me back to my childhood home, Berlin-Marzahn. When I returned to my old neighbourhood, my school and home had disappeared. A photo installation followed to revive memories and reconcile a part of my life, namely the transition I experienced after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The two places have one thing in common: communism. One is about a world that no longer exists, except for in my memories—memories often tied to objects like my teddy bear, Brummel. The other world is a place where tensions between East and West are still palpable to this day, and whose hidden existence reminds me of my childhood. The photo exhibition was not only an opportunity for me to share my story, but also a way for me to affirm my identity as an East-German German woman.
Can you briefly explain your umbrella project Within Our Walls and Beyond?
Within Our Walls and Beyond was created in November 2014 in Geneva, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It includes the travelling photo exhibition ‘Within My Walls and Beyond’, a growing archive of testimonials on the fall of the Berlin Wall, workshops and other documentary photography projects on the walls that persist in our local and global communities.
Walls can be erected from words, from cultures, from discrimination, all sorts of walls can pop up, and this project, as you will see, is trying to visualise that. – Ambassador Dr Thomas Fitschen, 7 November 2014
Within Our Walls and Beyond is described as an educational project. How does the experience work?
I’ve been offering an interdisciplinary and participatory educational experience on a part of Germany’s and Europe’s history through my photo exhibition, and interactive storytelling activities on the theme of walls. The most recent exhibition took place at the International School of Geneva (Ecolint), where workshops were held in the framework of the following courses: Visual Arts, Music, Theatre, History, French, German and Philosophy.
I’ve been adapting the learning outcomes for different schools and age groups, facilitating in English, French or German. Some of the content produced during the workshops has been on display and will be carried forward to the next exhibitions.
Teaser courtesy Undine Groeger, YouTube
Self-examination in terms of the walls we build between ourselves and others must be quite powerful, even painful. What effect does it have on visitors?
As photographers we want to tell a story either about ourselves and/or the other. The intent of a photographic story is to raise awareness about history and bring attention to untold or neglected narratives to hopefully create positive change. However, in the process I believe we mustn’t forget that the audience visiting and experiencing an image might feel pain and unease. Not just because of the story told, but also because the person might be reminded of his/her own, possibly untold narrative. If that comes to the surface, the injustice might be re-experienced, evoked through the photographic story.
As a photographer, I’m a storyteller but also a listener. I pay special attention to the visitor experience, creating spaces for sharing, co-creation and healing. It becomes a participatory, interactive experience and each of the four exhibitions has been unique in their content and experience.
When you look at our world today, what walls would you like to break down?
My main concern is to broaden the understanding of walls, the cause for their existence on an individual and collective level. I believe that this is the first step towards understanding each other better and creating bridges.
Often we aren’t conscious of the existence of walls as their nature is invisible and complex. I believe we cannot advocate for tearing down walls if we do not spend time to understand the root cause for their existence, or what might be the preventative measures to take.
Unfortunately, even when we understand these dynamics we often still create walls, be it consciously or unconsciously. However, I’m convinced that with the creation of safe spaces through the arts, we can build empathy, a better understanding of ourselves and each other, and pathways that allow us to integrate scars and the healing process to get to reconciliation.
We often talk about walls in a negative sense, as barriers to be destroyed. Do you see a positive side to the concept?
The intent in each of my projects is not to necessarily bring down walls or advocate for no walls, but to raise awareness about the concept of walls—engage people in a dialogue on walls that goes beyond the physical to the emotional, mental and spiritual. I create safe spaces through workshops and story circles, where I hope people feel comfortable to express their experiences with walls, free of judgment. The most positive for me is the ability to recognise non-physical walls and be open to the idea that for some, they might be perceived as a disconnect, a form of safety or even relaxation depending on the context.
In various situations we refer to ‘putting up a wall’. This might be in moments of discomfort. For example, I tend to listen to music in public transportation to cancel out the noise of the trains and conversations that I do not want to hear. Some might perceive this as me isolating myself from society. However, with the overflow of information, lights, the vast amount of people and noise in a big city, I become over-stimulated and do have the desire for a certain amount of what one could call isolation. So I choose a ‘music wall’ created through headphones—as long as I do not disturb my neighbour. One might feel privacy is invaded through social media while others make a living with it, address private questions in a professional context, create friendships, or use on-the-go video cameras that are meant to create new experiences with your families and friends. Where do we draw the line and put up walls to protect and disconnect, in order to (re) connect?
Tell us about Brummel and what role he plays.
Brummel is a teddy bear, ‘born’ in 1939, now with the third generation of women in my family. Brummel survived World War II and experienced the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. He built up resilience by surviving war, overcoming economic and social oppression, and fighting against discrimination in his own country. Today he is a lucky teddy bear because he has become the subject of a travelling photo exhibition. He travels the world to share and listen to stories. He has just moved to New York with me.
Brummel and I facilitate workshops for adults and children to share his story and open a dialogue about the theme of walls with the intention of creating openings to share each other’s stories, find support, integrate scars, inspire and facilitate healing.
He was part of a Human Library at the Children as Actors of Transforming Society (CATS), one of the CAUX Initiatives of Change Foundation’s summer conference. Brummel also became a book, A teddy bear’s journey through Germany: 1939–2015, which explored the following theme: ‘We are strong—we build resilience through the challenges that we overcome’.
You recently moved from Switzerland to the United States. Can you tell us more about this endeavour and your current work?
My next body of work will be shown at the International Center of Photography in June 2018. I’d like to take this as an opportunity to thank my community for the enormous support I’ve received for my most recent Dreamlight Campaign, which allowed me to move from Geneva to attend the International Center of Photography in New York.
I’m grateful to friends, family, mentors, accomplished photographers and the institutions for women’s empowerment that felt compelled to support me in continuing my mission ‘to reconcile the past in the present through the power of photography’.
Images in this post courtesy Undine Groeger unless otherwise attributed.
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You can hear Undine’s words on her experience as a 10 year old in East Berlin when the wall came down on 10 November 1989. This recording was made by Wahre Geschichten Zürich and the theme for the event was Awakening. Here, she introduces the audience to Transnistria.